The recurring dialogue I have with myself while driving goes something like this: I hit a cyclist, she dies, I’m carted away by the police, I serve a prison term of indeterminate but interminable duration. My children, shamed, have to change schools, and my husband, during his weekly visits, chronicles the decline of our beloved garden, a symbol of the death spiral my actions set in motion.
Worried about hitting a cyclist or pedestrian, I’ve recently cut back on driving at night and drive less and less overall. To be sure, I’ve never liked driving, a trait I inherited from my mother, who was famous in our Seattle neighborhood for preferring the “non freeway route.” And like any bona fide Portlander, I limit car travel to improve health, economy and environment.
But as I get older, fear is also playing a role. Portland does a better job than most mitigating conflicts between cars and two wheelers or people on foot. Still, in a world dominated by fast moving two-ton machines, opportunities for death and injury abound. And even in pdx, too many poorly designed streets and non existent driver liability laws compromise safe biking and walking—leaving the burden of responsible driving up to the individual.
That burden is too much for me. Despite efforts to drive slowly and keep an eye out for non-motorized transport, I’m still convinced that somewhere, sometime, I will hit someone. And I wonder how many drivers feel the same way. I wonder how much of the vitriol directed towards cyclists and pedestrians is really animated by fear—the fear of hitting a two wheeler, the fear of a societal shift that is taking place even as the necessary social and physical infrastructure is still inadequate to support it.
Perhaps that’s too generous an analysis. But in cities like Amsterdam and Copenhagen, a deeply ingrained multi modal culture, including mixed use street design and strict speed limits and driver liability, takes the pressure off everyone, including, paradoxically, drivers.
To be a bit literary about it, let me end with this epigraph from a Nadine Gordimer book I just finished reading: July’s People, a parable of South Africa. “The old is dying and the new cannot be born. In this interregnum arises a great diversity of morbid symptoms.” As American car culture falters and the new bike/ped/transit culture struggles to gain ascendancy –I am, it would seem, experiencing a diversity of morbid symptoms.